Another year is almost over and, in looking back at 2012, a great many legal events stand out. This was a year of major controversy as liberals and conservatives moved even further apart on numerous issues, including healthcare, voting rights, and immigration. The Supreme Court ruled on several hot issues, is considering several more for the current session, and some important new legislation occurred this year.
The Biggest Legal Events of 2012
1. Affordable Care Act
The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress in 2010, also known as “Obamacare,” was so reviled by conservatives that it went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2012 on the claim that it was unconstitutional. The justices were split, but upheld the most controversial section—the individual mandate—in a 5 to 4 decision. The one restriction resulting from the Supreme Court’s ruling is on the expansion of Medicaid, by allowing states some freedom to not expand the program without paying the financial penalties called for in the ACA. Though conservatives were disappointed that the court did not overturn the law, arguing that the government could not require Americans to buy insurance or pay a fine under the Commerce Clause, Chief Justice Roberts declared that the fine was no different than a tax imposed by the government, which is allowable in the Constitution.
2. Election Voting
After all the voting controversy of the 2012 presidential election (where courts used the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to block new voter ID requirements and cutbacks on early voting) the Supreme Court decided that it would review the constitutionality of the law. The court expects to rule on it by June of 2013, and their decision could result in changes to the way elections are conducted in the U.S. The portion of the law that will be considered is Section 5, which requires local governments to obtain permission from federal court or the Justice Department before changing voting rules. Opponents to Section 5 claim the requirement infringes on state sovereignty.
3. Immigration/DREAM Act
Immigration policy received a lot of attention this year, when President Obama declared that immigrant deportations of the offspring of illegal immigrants could be deferred if they met certain criteria outlined in the original DREAM Act. Meanwhile in Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer signed an executive order banning people with deferred status from obtaining driver’s licenses or any public benefits.
Also in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled on Arizona’s immigration law, upholding the requirement that police check immigration status of everyone they stop for even minor offenses. However, they struck down provisions that immigrants be required to carry immigration papers at all times, that they be banned from soliciting work in public places, and that allowed police to arrest immigrants without a warrant for deportable crimes.
4. Same-Sex Marriage
Legal marriage between people of the same sex was a huge issue in 2012, with nine states, plus the District of Columbia and two Native American tribes legalizing same-sex marriage through legislative action, popular vote, or court rulings. Other states tried, but failed—however, efforts to have gay marriage legally recognized in all states continue. Most states still outright prohibit same-sex marriage in their constitutions. Furthermore, the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to refuse recognition of same-sex marriage performed in other states and prevents the federal government from recognizing them, is under fire and will be reviewed for constitutionality by the Supreme Court in the coming year.
5. Potential New Gun Laws
Over the past decade, gun laws have expanded to allow more people access to more kinds of guns with fewer restrictions. The assault weapons ban expired under the second Bush presidency, and President Obama’s first term has been relatively gun-friendly as well. However, the recent massacre in Newtown has dramatically changed the national feeling on gun control, and in response, President Obama has created a Gun Violence Task Force to be headed up by Vice-President Biden. Meanwhile, Senator Feinstein, who wrote the original assault weapons ban, has promised to reintroduce gun-control legislation to the new congress in January. New gun laws could include a ban on certain weapons and high-round clips, stricter licensing requirements and background checks, and hefty taxes on guns and/or ammo.